To be honest, I was out of college and graduate school and working as a professional in higher education before I ever heard the term “first generation student.” After some brief mental processing from a professional standpoint, it hit me: “Wait a minute, that’s me. So that’s a thing?”
And of course, it IS a thing. It’s a thing that anyone interested in educational access and success, anyone committed to diversity in higher education, and anyone who is passionate about seeing young people achieve their potential wants to understand. It’s also a thing that those of us who wear the label want to understand about ourselves, because ultimately it’s a thing we can be proud of. We are, after all, pioneers.
My parents did not have easy childhoods, but they were smart and they worked hard. Surrounded by strong, loving families and mentors who took an interest in them, they learned on the job and worked their ways into a good middle-class life. I was always aware of how highly they valued education, and deeply grateful that they researched the public school systems in the greater Indianapolis area and sacrificed to buy a home in the best school district they could find. It offered me wonderful teachers, accelerated and AP courses, and a superlative performing arts program. I was immersed in a high-performance environment with a high college-going rate, and from my earliest memory there was no question in my mind that I would attend college. I had great grades, a great pedigree of college-prep courses on my transcript, and a supportive community and family. I was blessed.
But most of my friends in high school were not First Gens. What stands out in my memory, before I ever knew that First Gen was “a thing,” is the conversations about the colleges we were considering. I would often smile and nod knowingly, when, in fact, I had never heard of many of the schools they were applying to. I didn’t research colleges. I didn’t contact any Admissions departments. I didn’t try to calculate my odds of getting into any schools. I applied to two schools, the two I had heard most about, the two that I knew would be affordable, our two largest state institutions. At the time, I thought it was about the money and what my family could afford, but I know now that it was just as much about not being able to picture myself at a private college, an out-of-state school, or certainly any of those schools I had never heard of. Not that I even knew what any of that would be like. I just “knew” that somehow it wouldn’t be who I was.
In the fall of 1977, I enrolled at Purdue University, Indiana’s Land Grant institution, and loved it from my first moment there (Boiler up!). It was academically rigorous, steeped in college tradition, and a place where I felt entirely at home. I still love my Alma Mater and absolutely would not change my decision to go there. What I would change, though, is the process I went through to make that decision. If I had a “do over,” I would ask more questions about how to fund my college education. I would research and visit lots of different kinds of schools in my college search. I would push back against my own tendency to think I couldn’t fit in somewhere. I would be deliberate in my decision-making and view my options as wide-open instead of limited. I believe I would still choose Purdue, but I would love it all the more for knowing it, and myself, better.
Cheyanne Cierpial ’16 wrote in her essay, “being first isn’t not knowing the answers. It’s not even knowing the questions to ask in the first place.” This statement rings so true to me. I had a wonderful college experience, but I could have asked more questions, pushed myself more, and explored more unchartered waters than I ever dreamed of doing back then. So my advice to my fellow First Gens is to keep asking questions until you figure out what questions you really need to ask. Cultivate relationships with people who can help you see yourself in ways that you don’t currently see yourself. Don’t hold back on seeking help to remove barriers. See possibilities as unlimited, and be the pioneers that you are.
- Joyce Meredith, B.S., M.S. Purdue University; Ph.D., The Ohio State University